Brothers in Arms: The Story of Al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists by Camille Tawil

“I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.”

Patton (1970), screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola.

“Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

Vice President Joe Biden (2011)

“God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos: He will set them above their betters.”

H. L. Mencken (1956)

Brothers in Arms: the Story of Al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists by Camille Tawil is a lucid investigation of the various threads within the modern Islamist movement.  While the media, especially television, is prone to turn Middle Eastern anti-government dissent into a monolith labeled “terrorist,” Tawil, an investigative journalist working for the al-Hayat Arabic daily in London, dissects the various theological and political rifts within the Islamist movement.

Borne within the crucible of the Afghan-Soviet War and unified by religious rhetoric and corrupt tyrants supported by the United States, the Islamist movement attracted both the devout and the sadistic.  In the words of the poet Ezra Pound,

These fought, in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case ..

Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later …

some in fear, learning love of slaughter.

From Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920)

Within the context of the Arab struggle against tyranny, the Islamist movement presents itself as a constellation of paramilitary groups working within the parameters of nationalistic goals.  Besides the corrupt monarchs and dictators, the Islamists also stand in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s tendency towards non-violent protest and Kemal Atatürk’s secularization of Turkey following the First World War.  One is left with the dismal choice between tyranny or theocracy.  To use a phrase familiar with benighted, defeatist, unimaginative voters: “the lesser of two evils.”  A false dichotomy ingrained into the consciousness, a Manichean rube that kills critical thought.  (One should note the single unambiguous difference between the agents of Islamist terror and members of the Christian Right: the Islamists have beards.)

Throughout the book, an underlying tension occurs between two countervailing trends.  Nationalist uprising (overthrowing the tyrannical status quo, etc.) and internationalist jihad (creating a global caliphate along 7th century lines, etc.) either compete for dominance or collude with each other.  Erstwhile secular dictators like Saddam Hussein have flirted with jihadist rhetoric to retain hold on power.  Nationalist movements have also had their secular agendas, ranging from the aforementioned Atatürk and certain factions of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (Cf. the more theocratic HAMAS, Iran’s unelected theocratic Guardian Council, and the unelected Christian Right’s relationship with the GOP).  Not every Islamist movement thought joining Osama bin Laden’s World Islamic Front was in their best interests.  Similarly, not every Islamist movement thought the turn towards attacking the United States was a good idea either, despite the United States supporting dictatorial regimes and absolute monarchies for decades.

Preserving freedom at home by supporting tyranny abroad.

This brings up two important questions: What does national liberation matter when the end goal is a global caliphate?  Granted, Islamist groups wanted to overthrow the present dictatorial regimes and install more Sharia-friendly Islamic states, but putting things in “global” terms opens the field to all sorts of utopian lunacy.  Second, given the Islamist desire to create austere theocratic regimes with the Quran as the only law, the complaints against secular dictatorships become moot.  It becomes an aesthetic debate, since tyranny and repression will be fruit of both systems.

Tawil explains how a desire to create democratic systems becomes a major sticking point between Islamist groups.  Some desire to batter the government into holding elections; others see democracy as another manifestation of the infidel.  For all the black-and-white saber rattling associated with the War on Terror, Tawil shows the difficult choices facing Islamist groups and how different goals led to groups getting torn apart.

Brothers in Arms: the Story of Al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists offers an illuminating exploration of the variegated Islamist movement.  Written in 2007, the book lacks information on the more recent London and Bali bombings. The greatest irony facing the Islamist movement is its oncoming irrelevance due to the Arab Spring passing across the Middle East like the European Revolutions of 1848 and the dissolution of the Iron Curtain from 1988 to 1993.  The social networked young secular activists, despite the best efforts of the United States to sit on the fence, will do what arms and terror cannot and shove extremist terror into the dustbin of history.

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